Pump Up the Volume (1990) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

We split on this one. Scoop liked Christian Slater's charismatic performance, but thought that the script simply pandered to the most simplistic black-and-white culture gap attitudes, ala Billy Jack. Tuna liked it.

Scoop's comments in white.

Christian Slater plays a shy high school kid by day, but at night the soft-spoken student turns into a pirate disc jockey who goes on the air whenever he feels like it, and says whatever he wants to, addressing his fellow students at Hubert Humphrey High. The film wasn't made either as meaningful drama or as a satire, but as a teensploitation film that was made specifically to pander to a disaffected suburban youth market. All the kids are universally good looking, sincere, and mistreated. All of the adults are insincere, pompous, and violent toward children. I don't think I heard one line of dialogue that could actually have been said by a human person of any age. These cartoon characters could have been sufficient if the film had established itself as a satire, but it really didn't try for any humor.

Although the film was meant as a quickie to cash in on the teen dollars, it managed to go beyond the usual youthploitation fare and achieve semi-iconic status thanks to a charismatic lead performance from Christian Slater in his nighttime DJ avatar as Happy Harry Hard-On, the foul-talking chronic masturbator who provides sort of a muckraking service in exposing corruption at his local high school. (His dad is the superintendent of schools, so he has access to internal school district memoranda.)


  • Samantha Mathis was topless in a nighttime dance/sex scene. It is better in the 4:3 version. (Both are on the DVD)

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1, and a full screen version

  • no meaningful features

It could have been an excellent movie if it had attempted to give the characters some depth. For example, the kids could have realized that their parents and teachers felt exactly the same way 20 years ago, and the adults could have rediscovered some idealism they once had and lost. Unfortunately, by making all the characters cardboard and one-dimensional, by making the authority figures completely lacking in self-examination, and by remaining whiny and virtually humorless, it stayed a niche film. Kids under 18 rate it a solid 7.3 at IMDB, but others find it just fair.

I found it watchable, but sophomoric. I liked Slater.


Pump Up the Volume (1990) is a film I avoided assuming that it was a rock music story, which wouldn't interest me at all. HUGE MISTAKE. Although Heathers is the cult pick for the ultimate teen angst film, Pump Up the Volume has amazing insight as to how much it can suck to be a teenager, and exactly why. It should be a required watch for anyone who works in a High School, and any parent with a kid turning 13. Interestingly, like Heathers, it stars Christian Slater.

Slater has been moved to the middle of Arizona in his senior year of High School and away from his friends in New York because his father became the district superintendent. Not only was he uprooted and is now in a school filled with strangers that seem nothing at all like his friends, but there are serious problems with the school, despite its reputation for having the best SAT scores in the state. He is smart, shy and withdrawn, but finds an outlet running his own pirate FM station. He catches the imagination of the entire student body, but most especially Samantha Mathis, who figures out his true identity, and eventually breaks through his defenses.

When a student commits suicide after calling his show, the powers that be, already disturbed over his popularity, the music he plays, and the fact that the student body is becoming more and more unruly under his influence, blame him for the death and bring in the police and the FCC to catch him. It turns out that the principal has a clever scheme for keeping those SAT scores so high. She collects the federal funding for each enrolled student, then finds a way to expel anyone she feels might not do well on the tests.

IMDb readers have this at 6.8 of 10, with scores inversely proportional to age of voter. I like "Up the Establishment," films anyway but this one dealt with real teen perceptions. Not only that, but they found a way to have an ending that was at once realistic and hopeful.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Maltin 2.5/4, Apollo 72/100

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDB readers say 6.6/10, Apollo voters 87/100
  • Domestic gross: $11 million
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "this film is a C". Tuna says, "This is a B-, as one of the better teensploitation films."

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